Can restaurants serve as social spaces? Sheikha Hend Al Qasimi thinks so. The Emirati artist, editor, fashion label owner and restaurateur believes her latest venture can plug what she sees as a market gap for experience-led restaurants. Heart in a Box cafe opens later this month in Downtown Dubai.
Created as a floral and chocolate boutique and events company in 2007, the brand has been extended to incorporate a design space and art gallery that also offers classes and cultural experiences. Those concepts will come together in an all-day restaurant that aims to reflect how we eat today, serving up a menu of modern classics that are created from healthy and organic ingredients.
Experiential dining at Heart in a Box
"Yes, we have enough restaurants in the UAE, but none offer you an experience you can take home with you," Sheikha Hend tells The National. She describes the concept as a cultural hub for art and food. "Galleries will fill the cafe's walls with art, and we will organise pro bono book clubs for charity. I'm really into the idea of literary clubs, social gatherings that enrich our minds and souls, both spiritually and intellectually. We don't really have these in the Emirates," she says.
In some ways, Sheikha Hend takes inspiration from the literary and philosophical salons that were central to the French Age of Enlightenment, but versions of which date back to Umayyad times on the Arabian Peninsula. “I used to host gatherings around a koi pond in my home, where everyone would come with a dish and one of two things: either an experience you learnt from or a book you want to share with the group,” she says. “I’d have architects, artists, teachers, professors, surgeons – it was wonderful. And I would really like to share this experience with the public. I think it would benefit everyone.”
In a nod to the influencer-driven times we live in, luxury brands will be able to organise book events hosted by Sheikha Hend at Heart in a Box. Called Tea with Lady Velvet – an extension of her social media handle @LadyVelvet_HFQ – the series will serve as a by-invitation showcase for a specific guest list.
Scents and sensibility
As is often the case with construction and interiors projects in the current climate, the restaurant has been delayed, but Sheikha Hend hasn't exactly been sitting around. She recently launched three unisex perfumes, Hend by Hend I, II and III.
Inspired by the UAE and two years in the making, the first has notes of rose, lemon and musk, the next is heavy on Arabian scents of cedarwood, cardamom and nutmeg, while the fresh and fruity third fragrance is redolent of jasmine, orange blossom and vanilla. “The first is romance, the second confidence and third is happiness and love in a bottle,” she says.
The fragrances retail at Alexandre J boutiques, and the Sheikha admits that only when the brand's owners experienced and loved the perfumes first-hand was she able to obtain shelf space that, she says, "is still a struggle as a first-timer. It doesn't matter where you're from".
"They're so impressed, they encouraged me to expand into incense, body mist and hair and face products, the works," she says.
Also on the cards is an updated version of The Black Book of Arabia, which is set for publication soon. First published in 2015, the collection of short stories is inspired by people Sheikha Hend has met in the Gulf – such as a woman sold into sex slavery, another who sells her kidney for love and a bride who goes blind on her wedding day.
Taking on haters
It is apparent that Sheikha Hend's influencer credentials go beyond being a member of the ruling family of Sharjah. Specifically, speaking out against hate speech earned her fans beyond her roles as author and creator. In April 2020, Sheikha Hend called out a series of Islamophobic posts on Twitter from a user who appeared to be based in Dubai. Among other things, the posts labelled all Muslims as terrorists.
Tweeting screenshots of the posts, she wrote that such behaviour would not be tolerated in the UAE. The account behind the posts has since been deleted – as have the website and Facebook page of the company the user appeared to be associated with.
In a subsequent tweet, she said: "Hate speech is the beginning of genocide. Gandhi once said: 'An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.' Let us learn from the bloody history we have now documented in pictures and film. Understand that death begets death and love begets love. Prosperity starts with peace."
Sheikha Hend, who has 430,000 followers on the platform, could have stayed silent when she saw the tweets, she tells The National, but that would send the wrong message: "I simply spoke so he would know that his vile attack would not go unnoticed or unpunished."
She has since continued to defend tolerance on Twitter, posting about the Rohingya crisis, retweeting moderate anti-ISIS comments, and calling for social media platforms to silence terrorists.
“Education has taught us to be tolerant, it’s what civilised societies are in their essence,” she says. “Tolerance is the cordial celebration of differences without necessarily having to embrace them.”